I'm sure more than a few American skating fans jumped out of their seats when Skate America was announced. After all, Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner have never faced off in a Grand Prix event outside of the Grand Prix Final. I would not at all be surprised if fans go to Chicago solely to see the two of them battle for the Skate America title. But yes, there are other skaters too! So let's take an early look at the event.
1. The return of Jason Brown
Yes, Jason Brown made his comeback at Team Challenge Cup in April and skated extremely well there, but Skate America will be where interested observers will judge the state of his comeback. After missing most of the second half of the season with an injury, he looked strong at Team Challenge Cup, with a triple axel that was as good as we've ever seen from him. That said, the story will definitely be whether or not his quad his ready for primetime. After all, the competition here is going to be tough - Boyang Jin, Shoma Uno, Denis Ten, and Maxim Kovtun all have multiple quads in their arsenal.
2. Sakhanovich's GP debut
Fourth at Russian Nationals four years ago and with two silvers at Junior Worlds, Serafima Sakhanovich had the makings of another Russian star. But last season was a struggle, as she had to deal with a coaching change early in the season and a whole lot of inconsistency in her jumps. Getting a Grand Prix assignment after finishing 17th at Russian juniors last season was quite the feat, and while this competition won't make her career, two poor performances could very well break it. The Russian women are just too strong.
3. Career checkpoints
A season away from the Olympics, there are a few skaters who will be taking stock of their skating and their places in the pecking order in international competition. And it will be especially true for skaters who represent countries with deep fields. Here are a few to watch for:
- Maxim Kovtun - An 18th at Worlds, where he completely fell apart in the free skate, added to a slew of disappointing skates for Kovtun. He's got a lot going for him, including quad toes and quad salchows in his repertoire. But he's feeling the heat from up-and-comers in Russia like Kolyada and Pitkeev. It's likely that Russia won't get more than two skaters in Pyeongchang.
- Sergei Voronov - Likewise, Voronov will be facing similar questions. To be honest, I was surprised that he chose to continue this season (teammate and similar counterpart Konstantin Menshov retired earlier in the off-season).
- Daisuke Murakami - With strong international results both the past two seasons, Murakami has yet to put it together at Japan Nationals. With Hanyu and Uno likely occupying two of the three Japan spots at Worlds (and likely Olympics), Murakami will be looking to use Skate America as springboard for Nationals two months later.
- Kanako Murakami - Murakami has been stagnating on the technical front the past few seasons. And having taken out the lutz altogether because of edge issues, she is no longer competitive in the free skate. With more of the young Japanese skaters becoming age-eligible for Worlds and Olympics, it will be the most difficult season yet for her to make the World team.
- Julia Lipnitskaia - It was a rebuilding season for Lipnitskaia, who got many of her jumps back after switching coaches to Alexei Urmanov. With more training time under her belt, it will be interesting to see where she is with her consistency.
4. Can Seguin/Bilodeau regain momentum?
In January, Julianne Seguin/Charlie Bilodeau looked like they were about to become one of the breakthrough pairs of the season. A terrific fourth at the Grand Prix Final just a month before in a tough field and then a strong second at Canadians put them in the perfect position for a potential top five finish at Worlds. But an injury to Seguin took them out of the rest of the season and halted their sprint. I, for one, will be excited to see them back in action. Love their look on the ice.
5. Gold vs. Wagner
Ok ok, I will talk about the biggest matchup we've seen at Skate America in quite a while. Both have played the headliner role at Skate America (Wagner in 2012 and 2013, Gold the past two years). Their rivalry, now in its fourth season, has pushed both of them to become better skaters. And it's Wagner who comes in off a career-best season in which she won the World silver medal. What will be interesting here is that they will have competed against each other just a few weeks before Skate America at Japan Open.
The U.S. women have not gone 1-2 in a Grand Prix since 2012, when Wagner won Skate America and Christina Gao took the silver, and this will be as good of a chance as any for that to happen again.